Due to Congressional influence, this week’s National Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Conference will now exclude two of the original panelists, while including two advocates of abstinence-only sex education programs. The conference, sponsored in part by the Centers for Disease Control, included a symposium to examine whether abstinence-only sex education undermined other forms of STD-reduction. Representative Mark Souder (R-IN) objected to the critical stance, and in an email to the Department of Health and Human Services about the “obvious anti-abstinence objective” of the conference, asked for a change in focus to create a “balanced” discussion, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The name of the symposium was changed from “Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?” to “Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth,” and changes were made to the speaking lineup, despite the rigorous peer review process of the original panel, according to Kaiser Daily Women’s Health Policy Report.
The excluded speakers are William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a respected researcher, and Pennsylvania State University student Maryjo Oster. Their replacements are Eric Walsh, a family physician and instructor at Loma Linda University, a Seventh Day Adventist School that purports to integrate “health, science, and the Christian faith”; and Patricia Sulak, who founded an abstinence program called “Worth the Wait.” Neither of the new panelists went through the peer review process that vetted the original panel, and Slate magazine reports that Sulak’s program was rejected by the state of New Mexico because of its medical errors and persistent gender bias.
The changes have drawn harsh criticism from the health community, as it suggests that the government feels free to intrude in the procedures of a major conference to support its own stances. Jonathan Zenilman, president of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The only reason [the new speakers are] here is because of political pressure.”